Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Bloody Embarrassment of Riches

Swedish crime novelist Arne Dahl attends Bloody Scotland 2013. (All photographs in this post © 2013 by Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures, used with permission.)

(Editor’s note: Below, Nancie Clare files her second report from the Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival taking place this weekend in Stirling, Scotland. Be sure also to read her interview with Lee Child and her observations on the conference’s opening day.)

It was an unusually (at least for Scotland) sunny Saturday morning, the first full day of Bloody Scotland. Time to attend my initial panel discussion, “Dark Deeds,” featuring authors Denise Mina (The Red Road) and Louise Welsh (The Girl on the Stairs), and moderated by Peter Guttridge (The Devil’s Moon). After each woman read a short passage from her latest novel, Guttridge asked them if they consider themselves “crime writers.” Both demurred. Mina said she writes detective stories, but was a member of the “church of crime.” Welsh sees her writing as a form of stealth politics; she points out inequities and prejudices in society without writing a manifesto.

Both women also write in other media: Mina is currently composing graphic-novel versions of the books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (which include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Welsh has written plays and opera librettos. Both enjoy those diversions from the task of crafting books; writing graphic novels, plays, and operas are collaborative endeavors. Mina suggests that being solitary for the 18 months or so it takes to turn out a novel can make you “mental.”

At noon I moved over to a different presentation, this one titled “New Nordic Noir” and focusing on Swedish author Arne Dahl, a pen name used by Jan Arnold. I’m not sure about the “new” part; Dahl wrote his set of 10 books, five of which have been dramatized and shown on the BBC, almost 15 years ago. Because of that TV exposure, Dahl is incredibly popular in the UK; unfortunately, the Swedish Arne Dahl TV series has not been widely broadcast in the United States.

You could say that Dahl (who, as Arnold, was already a “literary” writer) decided to try his hand at crime fiction during a fever dream. In the early 1990s, he suddenly found himself with the flu and a high fever. Lying in bed, he tried to read the works of Franz Kafka, which he acknowledges now was probably not the best choice. Frustrated, he turned instead to Faceless Killers (1997), the opening installment in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander mystery series. That experience convinced him to try his own hand at crime-fiction writing. Two of the 10 books he wrote over a 10-year period have been translated into English: The Blinded Man (published in the States as Misterioso) and Bad Blood.

(Right) Queuing at Albert Halls for the next event.

Dahl told his audience that he had no idea he’d become so fond of (or so rich from) penning crime fiction. He’s already produced three books in a second, “Opcop” series, this one involving international crime and a detective with Europol.

The 2013 Bloody Scotland festival is certainly an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the renown of its attendees. (Where do I begin? Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Jo Nesbø, Stuart Neville, Lee Child, and Louise Welsh--whose The Cutting Room is probably one of the best Scottish crime novels of all time.) However, I was still excited to sit in on the “Keeping Secrets” session with Charles Cumming and Chris Morgan Jones.

I haven’t yet read any of Morgan Jones’ works, but Cumming is the natural successor, at least in my opinion, to John le Carre. (Last year, Cumming’s A Foreign Country won the inaugural Scottish Crime Book of the Year award. Cumming, who lives in London, was born in Scotland.) Morgan Jones began writing fiction after he’d spent more than a decade working for Kroll Inc., an international risk-management firm based in New York City. His protagonist, Benjamin Webster (The Jackal’s Share), is a former journalist turned investigator for an international corporate intelligence firm.

Morgan Jones pointed out that corporate intelligence investigators are very much like spies, but instead of working for the state, they’re employed by multinational corporations. And also like spies, they often fall afoul of the laws in the countries where they operate. They are ripe for being set up and arrested for obtaining confidential material, especially in Russia and China. Morgan Jones himself worked in Russia and feared that same fate.

Cumming claims he never worked for either of England’s intelligence services (MI5 and MI6), but he tried to. I guess, we’ll have to take his word for it. But he did say that writing so much about spies and espionage matters can make you feel, well, a bit paranoid. He told his audience that a friend of his, a “spook,” texted him while he was in Spain, wishing him a happy birthday. Right away, Cumming was completely convinced that the flat he’d rented was bugged. Until he remembered that he had mentioned he was going to Spain to celebrate his birthday. Occupational hazard, I guess.

Browsing the bookshop at Bloody Scotland.

At the last possible minute I sneaked into the late-afternoon panel discussion “Fresh Blood,” which featured three recently debuted Scottish crime novelists, one of whom was Malcolm Mackay (whose second novel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, would later win the 2013 Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year award). The other two authors at the front of the room, Lisa Ballantyne and Matt Bendoris, have each published their first novel.

Ballantyne’s The Guilty One is a dual-narrative work about a London solicitor who is defending an 11-year-old boy accused of murder. The case brings up memories of the solicitor’s own violent past.

In Killing with Confidence, Bendoris--who’s employed as a journalist for a Glasgow newspaper--has created a serial killer who uses American self-help techniques to be better at his job, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and an overweight, technophobic reporter. The woman sitting next to me during this panel presentation told me that Killing was the best book she’s read so far this year.

The final, 6:30 p.m. Saturday session was “Dare to Thrill,” with Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. The line to get into the 1,000-seat Albert Halls auditorium for this event stretched around the block. Peter Guttridge served as interlocutor, and his introduction provided the startling fact that a Nesbø book is now purchased somewhere in the world every 23 seconds. Nesbø himself talked about his career leading up to becoming a writer: football star in high school, stockbroker, rock star. What was most interesting was to learn that, even after he became Norway’s biggest rocker, he never quit his stockbroker day-job. Nesbø would work until the markets closed, catch a plane to wherever he was set to play his next gig, then perform, go back to his hotel for a few hours of sleep instead of partying, and get up the next morning to hop the first flight back to Oslo in order to be seated at his desk when the markets opened again. He kept up this pace, he explained, because he did not want to turn what he loved to do into a job.

(Left) Norway’s Jo Nesbø

Nesbø said that his protagonist, loose-cannon police inspector Harry Hole, is always trying to be a better person. But the author doesn’t see himself as a political spokesman; he sees himself as an entertainer, a storyteller.

He was asked about the coming film version of his novel The Snowman (which was released in an English translation in 2010). It seems Nesbø was disappointed that Martin Scorsese bowed out of the project, but he said he’s not in a hurry to find another director. As a storyteller, he contended, it’s very important to wait for the right director, someone who can best bring the story to the big screen. Nesbø added that the film does not have to be an exact replica of the book. He said he would not like to have anyone interfering with his telling of a tale, so he does not expect to interfere with the film’s director. Once they find one.

Finally, he warned that Harry Hole fans might have to wait a bit to find out what happens to the character, after the book Police is released by Knopf on October 15 of this year. Nesbø’s next novel, due out in Norway next spring, will be a standalone called Sønner (Sons).

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